What Nonprofits can learn from Watching “The Following”

In January, Fox Television introduced viewers to a new drama called “The Following”.  It is the story of Joe Carrroll, played by James Purefoy, an English professor and author inspired by the writings of Edgar Allen Poe turned serial killer, imprisoned for the murder of fourteen college coeds.  While in prison he uses social media to create a network of supporters that help him escape and starts a new story of revenge, allowing each member of his network to “write a chapter” of the tale.  The FBI brings in former agent Ryan Hardy, played by Kevin Bacon, who caught Carroll after his original crimes.  He is an expert on the crimes of Joe Carroll, and consults with the FBI to help capture the missing criminal.  It is a rather grisly show with plenty of bloodshed, so if you are squeamish it may not be for you, but the psychology of the drama fascinates me.

Although I am not suggesting that nonprofits get their supporters to wreak havoc and murder people senselessly, there are several aspects of the show that organizations should examine to better themselves.

1.  It takes time and planning for a successful campaign.  Joe Carroll didn’t escape from prison right after he was sent up the river.  The storyline tells us that he was in prison for many years plotting his escape and revenge on those who he felt betrayed him.  He had to put out feelers online to get the attention of those who would be interested in helping him and build his network.  Players had to embed themselves in positions that could allow them to carry out their plan without detection.  This didn’t happen overnight.  Likewise, it takes time for an organization to hone its message, build connections with its supporters, and cultivate the relationships necessary for long term volunteer and financial support.

2.  Make the time to get to know your supporters.  Joe Carroll had his followers, individuals from all walks of life, come visit him in prison.  He asked them what their background was and what their motivation was for taking part in his plans.  He listened to what they said, and then used that information so he could find a way for each of them to do what was necessary to make his plans come to fruition.  Nonprofit managers and fundraisers need to ask those same questions of their supporters, listen to what they say, and then plan an individualized way for their supporters to get more involved with their organization.  You have got to get inside your supporters head to really understand their motivations.

3.  Give your supporters a way to help you and make them feel a part of the organization.  Joe Carroll allowed each member of his followers “write their own chapter” of the story and carry out their plans.  By doing so, each person felt they made a valuable contribution to the story.  When cultivating support, an organization will be far more successful if they ask their donors for advice and make them partners on projects, letting them have more influence on the outcomes.  By engaging the supporters, they will feel they have more than their money invested, and will work harder for something they have grown more passionate about.

4.  You brought in an expert, listen to what he has to say.  The FBI pulls Ryan Hardy out of retirement to capture Joe Carroll and end his campaign of terror, but then ties his hands and ignores his plans, which ends up costing the lives of numerous agents, police officers and innocent people.  Every time the investigation starts making headway, the higher ups in the bureaucracy of the FBI make a decision to go a different direction and things start going to hell in a basket.  An organization hires an Executive Director or a Development Director for their expertise in their field, but then will often tie their hands and keep them from successfully doing what they are paid to do.  They don’t want to take the chance to try something different and continue in their old ways, and then complain about the lack of progress.  And people wonder why there is such a high turnover rate in these positions?

The main point I am trying to convey is that your organization can build the loyal following of supporters you need by taking the time to get to know them, finding out what really motivates their passions, and including them in your activities.  Each person can have their own part and “write their own chapter” in your organization’s long term success.

The Following airs on Fox on Monday nights.  Check your local listings for the times in your area.  It has been picked up for a second season, so the story will go on for at least another year.

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About greatergoodfundraising

Richard Freedlund has been active in the nonprofit sector in a number of ways, both professionally and as a volunteer. He is the founder of Greater Good Fundraising, a business that helps schools and organizations raise money for their programs while accomplishing something positive for the community. After living in Oregon for 27 years, he has returned to his hometown of Rockford, Illinois and hopes to make his mark on the nonprofit sector there. He is the father of a talented jazz musician and the son of philanthropic parents that continue to support multiple causes. To contact Richard for consulting, fundraising, or speaking opportunities, email greatergoodfundraising@gmail.com or reach him on Twitter.com @ggfundraise
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